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Kyiv’s Street Baristas Carry On Undaunted By Russia’s Renewed Attacks

Although again aware of the possibility of death at any moment, the city’s coffee servers have opted to keep offering hot drinks – and support – to its residents. Chris York reports

Barista Kristina in Kyiv. Photo: Chris York

Kyiv’s Street Baristas Carry On Undaunted By Russia’s Renewed Attacks

Although again aware of the possibility of death at any moment, the city’s coffee servers have opted to keep offering hot drinks – and support – to its residents. Chris York reports

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“I couldn’t take a step in any direction, I was just frozen to the spot,” says Kristina, a 22-year-old barista describing the moment a Russian missile exploded 150m away from the kiosk in which she works in Kyiv’s Taras Shevchenko park. “We opened again in the afternoon but I was too scared and stressed to do it, but I came back to work the next day.”

One of the bizarre little quirks of daily life in Kyiv is that anyone taking shelter in the city centre during an air raid alert can still risk popping above ground for a few minutes and buy a coffee from one of the countless kiosks that dot the capital’s streets.

Over the calm summer months, these street baristas have worked in relative safety. But the events of recent weeks have forced them to re-evaluate – and then largely disregard – the risks posed by a renewed Russian attempt to bombard Kyiv with ballistic missiles and new kamikaze drones.

Oksana, 52, who works at a kiosk next to the entrance of Palats Ukraina metro station in the city centre, describes a wave of drones that attacked the city on 17 October, destroying a number of buildings and killing five people.

“We heard the sound of the drones and then we could hear people shooting at them with automatic weapons so we were scared there was something heading our way. We left everything and ran into the metro. But as soon as we got into the entrance we saw it had flown over so we went back to work.”

Kyiv is a starkly different city to what it was just two weeks ago. Before the strikes on 10 October, Ukraine’s capital had not been hit since the end of June – air raid sirens went largely unheeded and the city’s street baristas worked as if everything was normal.

Now, the city’s bomb shelters and metro stations are filled with people waiting out the alerts and Kyiv – along with cities right across the country – faces a daunting winter, hobbled by Russia’s repeated attacks on the civilian infrastructure that provides its citizens with warmth and water. 

Natalia. Photo: Chris York

“It feels like living on top of a powder keg at the moment,” says Natalia, a 41-year-old with a makeshift book stall in Shevchenko Park. “It’s a totally different city – there are more missiles, these new drones, and you just have to try and guess which building will be hit next.”

Viewed from afar, the ability of Ukrainians to carry on with normal life while under bombardment from Russia is a bravery and fortitude with an almost superhuman quality – but on the ground, any suggestion that this is the case is met with a shrug.

“Obviously, I didn’t think about [being killed in a missile strike] back when I took the job,” says Kristina, “but if you work in any job in Ukraine now there’s a possibility you’re going to die because you never know when a missile or a drone is going to hit.”

For a population under daily attack, no one is deciding whether or not to be brave – there is a more fundamental question: do you carry on living your life or not?

As the realities of the war quickly shift, everyone performs their own risk assessments on a daily basis to decide what they deem acceptable. Official guidance from the Ukrainian Government is that all citizens should take shelter during an alert but the reality is that people have to balance the disruptive effect of putting their working and family lives on hold for a few hours every day at completely random times, against the risk to life.

Palals Ukraina. Photo: Chris York

Olga, a 24-year-old working in a small kiosk on Velyka Vasylkivska Street, says she now only closes and heads to a shelter when she hears “explosions, not just sirens”. She pauses for a second thinking, before adding: “But on Monday I knew the explosions were far away so I didn’t go down to the shelter.”

It’s an illuminating insight into the decision-making processes of Ukrainians, that Olga knew the explosions were only 3km away. “I feel no fear,” she adds. “If I die, I die. I’m not afraid of death.”

All of this begs the question of whether or not it’s worth risking your life to serve coffee. Kyiv’s street baristas, when asked, say they see themselves as providing much more than just a hot drink.

“We have to work because people are coming here for coffee after reading sad news in the morning and they want to have some sort of support,” says Kristina. “So we give a smile and have a little chat and this helps everybody – us and them.”

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